Nationalism and authoritarianism in the Balkans

by BYRON CLARK. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

Milorad Dodik, president of the “Republika Srpska” entity within Bosnia

The violence that occurred in the western Balkans in the 1990s has shaped the region’s politics to this day. An uneasy peace has been maintained but as Russia acts on its imperial ambitions in Ukraine Putin’s support of groups in the Balkans who glorify the war criminals who committed atrocities against the region’s Muslim populations and harbour desires for ethnostates means that violence could once again erupt.

Following the breakup of Yugoslavia into nation states, ethnically-Serb separatists in the new state of Bosnia carried out a genocide of the predominantly Muslim Bosniak population with the goal of creating a Greater Serbia in the region. Those events gave the world the euphemism “ethnic cleansing” and led to the deaths of over 100,000 people. The conflict ended with an agreement that saw Bosnia governed by a tripartite presidency representing the country’s three major ethnic groups- Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. Milorad Dodik, president of Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated autonomous region, denies that any genocide took place, describing it as a “myth” and a “deception.” He has long been advocating for the region’s secession, to become part of Serbia.

Dodik has chastised members of the European Parliament for not opposing the “Bosnian Islamic state” he believes Muslim Bosniaks are planning.[1] At the meeting where he made those comments he was echoed by Dragan Čović, leader of the Croatian Democratic Union of Bosnia and Herzegovina political party, and a former member of the tripartite presidency, who joined Dodik in blaming Bosniaks for trying to establish “a unitary Islamic state”.

In February Dodik moved to pull the Republika Srpska out of key national institutions, such as the tax system and judiciary. He also announced plans to set up a separate military, something the Washington Post described as essentially resurrecting the forces that carried out the massacre of eight thousand people in Srebrenica in 1995. Over the past fifteen years Dodik has cultivated a relationship with Russia, which has served the interests of both his secessionist movement and the Kremlin.[2] Last December, Russian President Vladimir Putin pledged to support Bosnian Serbs in their disputes over power-sharing. Russian investment in Republika Srbska has ensured a cheap source of raw resources for Moscow, and established a useful strategic offshore satellite. Following the invasion of Ukraine, the EU almost doubled the peacekeeping force in Bosnia as a precautionary measure.[3]

The Biden administration had announced new sanctions against Dodik in January, accusing him of “corrupt activities” and undermining the U.S.-brokered Dayton accord which ended the war in 1995 and established the tripartite presidency.

Writing in 2014, Bosnian political scientist Jasmin Mujanović described Dodik as “Moscow’s man in Banja Luka”.[4] In light of the situation in Ukraine Dodik has advocated for Bosnia-Herzegovina to remain neutral in the conflict – a decision that requires the backing of all three presidency members.[5] The two others, Šefik Džaferović and Željko Komšić support sanctions against Russia. Dodik has accused them of toppling the constitution and hence the state, with Komšić responding that Dodik was implementing Putin’s plan of destabilisation.[6] This view was shared by Džaferović, who told The Guardian that Dodik:

is encouraged in his behaviour by Russia, which is always keen on showing that it can destabilise the soft underbelly of the EU and NATO. These are dark days for Europe and the whole world. We are witnessing something that is horrible. We saw a similar horror here in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s.[7]

Neighbouring Serbia is “definitely back on the path towards strongman rule” according to Jasmin Mujanović. Aleksandar Vučić has served as president since 2017. Early in his term he was the target of protest as a result of clamping down on free media and on NGOs critical of the government, and by labelling large segments of Serbia’s parliamentary opposition as anti-state elements. Vučić has attempted to maintain close relationships with both Western Europe and Putin’s Russia.[8] Tabloids loyal to him have spent the last five years spreading pro-Putin propaganda. Protesters waving Russian flags and carrying pictures of Putin have marched in Belgrade to demonstrate their support for Russia.

Far-right groups have been among the protesters. Damnjan Knezevic of the People’s Patrol spoke at one rally wearing the letter Z on his jacket, the letter has become a symbol of support for Russian militarism. The Kremlin-backed bikers’ club Night Wolves also participated, as did a number of individuals previously accused of fighting alongside Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Mladen Obradovic, leader of the banned Serbian far-right group Obraz described Russia as “a beacon of freedom.” claiming that “That is why we, the Serbs, have an obligation to stand by our Mother Russia.”

“Since they first went out into the streets, they have always advocated for ‘Mother Russia’ and claimed that Serbia belongs with Russia, not in the European Union,” Darko Sper told BIRN (Balkan Investigative Reporting Network).[9] Sper is an activist with the NGO coalition Civic Vojvodina who have organised rallies in support of Ukraine.

The crowd at the rally chanted the names of Vladimir Putin and Bosnian Serb war criminal Ratko Mladic, who is currently serving a life sentence for his role in the Srebeneca genocide.

“The Serbian people have not forgotten all that Vladimir Putin did for the survival of the Serbian people,” claimed Srdjan Letic, who travelled from the Bosnian town of Brcko to attend the rally in Belgrade. Letic is the leader of Sveti Georgije. The group claims that they carry out humanitarian work- with the help of two cars presented as a gift by the Russian embassy in Bosnia. Notably Letic was convicted in 2007 of falsifying banknotes and trading in weapons.

Russians wanting to leave the country have found Serbia to be one of the only options on the continent, with regular flights leaving Russia for Serbia at a time when other countries have banned them, but emigrants aiming to flee the regime are then finding themselves among some of its strongest supporters. “Some locals tell me they support Russia when they learn I am from Russia.” a former travel agent now living in Belgrade told AFP. “They say it to express their support, but it turns out this support extends to supporting Putin and his actions and the war.”[10]

Vučić’s regime has backed the U.N. resolution that deploring Russia’s aggression, but rejected sanctions on Russia. A stance Politico described as trying “to take his balancing act to a new level”.[11] The relationship between Russia and Serbia predates Vučić. In 1999 Russia opposed NATO’s bombing of Serbia (Putin has more recently cited the NATO bombing, which did not have U.N. Security Council approval, in attempting to justify his military incursion into Ukraine.)

NATOs intervention in Kosovo, where Serbia was persecuting the predominantly Muslim ethnic Albanian population arguably prevented a repeat of the genocide that had occurred in neighbouring Bosnia four years prior. “The atrocities of the 1990s had taught many American opinion makers that they could not simultaneously demand both an end to genocide and a policy of non-intervention.” wrote Samantha Power in A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. “Diplomacy without the meaningful threat of military force had too often failed to deter abuse”. NATO bombing in Serbia was not done for purely humanitarian reasons, according to Power, and likely would not have occurred without the perceived threat to US interests.

Kosovo president Vjosa Osmani told The Guardian that Russia is attempting to destabilise the western Balkans.[12] Prime Minister Albin Kurti believes that the country is significant in Putin’s plan to expand Russian power in Europe “He wants the state of Kosovo to fail in order to show that NATO success was temporary, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In early March the Bosnian branch of the Night Wolves organised a rally in Trebinje in southern Bosnia. Deputy leader Goran Tadic – who is the official driver of Republika Srpska energy and mining minister Petar Djokic – was in attendance, carrying a Russian flag. The Night Wolves also had a presence at a rally in the Montenegrin capital, Podgorica, alongside members of the Serb nationalist Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement. The original Chetniks were Serbian nationalists that collaborated with the Nazis in fighting communist Partisans during the second world war. The Ravna Gora Chetnik Movement has been accused of financing the travel of volunteer fighters from the Balkans to eastern Ukraine. Russia wants to maintain a sphere of influence in eastern Europe, a buffer zone between the Russian Federation and the countries in the European Union (and/or NATO) regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine, it will likely continue to exert influence over the nations of the Balkans via its support for Serbian nationalists and far-right groups, this could be disastrous for the region’s minority Muslim population.


[1] https://www.boell.de/en/2022/03/28/eu-must-stop-appeasing-putins-puppets-bosnia

[2] https://www.forbes.com/sites/lidiakurasinska/2022/02/23/as-the-world-watches-ukraine-possibility-of-disintegration-looms-in-bosnia/?sh=190f0a45410d

[3] https://www.reuters.com/world/europe/bosnias-pro-russian-serb-leader-tried-stop-countrys-un-vote-report-2022-03-03/

[4] https://www.opendemocracy.net/en/odr/moscows-man-in-banja-luka/

[5] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/dodik-ready-to-block-bihs-decision-to-join-eus-russia-sanctions/

[6] https://www.euractiv.com/section/politics/short_news/dodik-tries-to-push-for-bihs-neutral-stance-towards-russia/

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/russia-may-pressure-serbia-to-undermine-western-balkans-leaders-warn

[8] https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-russia-serbia-aleksandar-vucic/

[9] https://balkaninsight.com/2022/03/10/at-pro-russian-balkan-rallies-a-whos-who-of-the-far-right/

[10] https://www.themoscowtimes.com/2022/03/25/fleeing-putin-russians-resettle-in-pro-kremlin-serbia-a77078

[11] https://www.politico.eu/article/vladimir-putin-russia-serbia-aleksandar-vucic/

[12] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/russia-may-pressure-serbia-to-undermine-western-balkans-leaders-warn

Pandemic insignificance: how Germany’s left failed to defend life against capital during the COVID pandemic

By JONNA KLICK. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy.

A “Querdenken” protest in Berlin holding the symbol of the QAnon conspiracy theory, and flying the flag of the German Empire (1871-1918). Right-wing populists often fly the German Empire flag because they refuse to recognise the authority of the existing German Federal Republic.

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic reached middle Europe it finally happened: I caught the virus. I was sick for two weeks, which I spent mostly in bed, despite three vaccine shots. Getting infected is not surprising right now, since Germany is in the highest wave of COVID-infections since the beginning of the pandemic right now (with more than 1700 infections per 100,000 people per week at the end of March, though it has decreased since then). At the same time, a lot of anti-COVID measures are being lifted, including mandatory masks in shops. I am recovered now, but not all are that lucky. Even though the vaccination gives relatively good protection, people can still suffer from long COVID and especially for vulnerable groups (e.g., with previous illnesses) there is still a significant risk of a severe course of the disease or death.

This situation is a result of the loud voices of COVID-denialists and individualists, but most of all of the fundamental function of the capitalist state that systematically prioritizes capital’s interests over the health of workers and marginalized groups. In this piece I will look at responses to the pandemic from the left in Germany and try to analyse how it failed to counterpose those forces effectively. Germany may serve as an example here for the situation in many other European countries, but I will focus on Germany since I know more about the situation here and also since it was often called a good example for handling the pandemic during the first COVID wave in 2020.

Germany’s reaction to COVID

When the pandemic started in China or even when the virus infected masses in Italy and also started spreading in Germany, very few people on the German left predicted that it was something that would affect “us” to a huge extent. Only when there was the official recommendation to cancel events with over 1000 participants in the beginning of March 2020, people started to take it seriously. Things went fast then and two weeks later there was a lockdown with most shops closed and one was only allowed to meet one other person outside of one’s own household in public.

This was of course a new situation since this kind of regulation of people’s private lives has not been seen before, at least not in recent decades. However, to most people it soon became clear that COVID was a serious threat that should be acted upon – at least when there were pictures in the news that showed military trucks in Italy transporting dead bodies since the crematoriums were overloaded. So most statements from the left in this first wave tried to find a balance between, on one hand, criticizing authoritarian state measures such as those against people meeting in public, and on the other hand, agreeing on the necessity to fight the virus and calling for health safety measures (sometimes tending to emphasise one or the other position). The anti-authoritarian communist alliance “Ums Ganze” wrote:

The irrationality of capitalism becomes all the more apparent in the crisis: when meetings of more than two people are banned except at work, capitalism shows that it will go over dead bodies for its survival. The biggest corona parties do not take place illegally in playgrounds or parks, but are state-sponsored: every day in open-plan offices, Amazon fulfilment centres and the country’s factories, as well as, not to be forgotten, in the refugee housing facilities where the state cramps the unwanted people together.

https://www.umsganze.org/no-time-to-die-corona-crisis-statement/

Broader interventions in the discourse from the left focussed on calling for health and safety for all. For example, there was a campaign by the anti-racist alliance Seebrücke for the evacuation of the Moria refugee camp in Greece. Since normal demonstrations were not possible, protest took creative and decentralized forms, such as putting shoes on public squares to represent protesters, or holding signs while queuing in front of shops. In the first days of the lockdown, spontaneous networks of mutual aid were also formed; not only by leftist activists, but in many cities they played key roles in them. Those networks organized via messenger groups where people offered to do grocery shopping for people who were either in quarantine or who were elderly of other members of vulnerable groups and did not want to risk an infection while shopping. There was a huge willingness from many people to offer those acts of mutual aid that outnumbered those that needed or wanted it by far.

However, there were also some demonstrations that downplayed or denied the threat of the pandemic. They came mostly from esoteric and conspiracy-theorist milieus and the far right, but also some people from the cultural sectors and leftists participated in them. This combination was quite similar to that of the red-brown “peace protests” that spread over Germany during the annexation of the Crimea in 2014, where those forces had taken a conspiracy-theorist and pro-Putin position.

Neither the party Die Linke (“The Left”) nor the trade unions offered their own answer to the pandemic, but mostly accepted the stance of the government, a coalition of Social Democrats and the conservative CDU/CSU. However, some members of Die Linke, including MPs, sympathized with or participated in the denialist protests.

Quickly, neoliberal voices, e.g., from the liberal party FDP, also called for loosening the restrictions for economic reasons, which many on the left criticized as an attempt to sacrifice the health of workers and marginalized groups for the interests of capital.

However, when the number of cases went down and restrictions were loosened in May, there was no resistance against the loosening, even though some – including on the left – warned that this might be too early. Many people were also happy that there was a partial “return to normal”, and many leftists were happy to be able to do demonstrations and events again, even though many leftists acted more carefully than others. The pandemic was not really an issue that the left or progressive social movements acted upon during the summer of 2020. It was, however, for those reactionary forces that kept on protesting against the restrictions that were still in place, mainly mandatory masks. That movement began to organize mainly under the label of “Querdenken” (“lateral thinking”). There were some counterdemonstrations by Antifa groups, but they were mostly outnumbered by the Querdenken-protesters.

Flattening the curve

By loosening the restrictions as soon as the number of cases went down, the German government like most governments chose a “flatten the curve” strategy. This means that measures are implemented to keep infections low enough to prevent the collapse of the health system, but as long as the health system is not under threat of collapse, infections and deaths are tolerated. This shows that a simple demand for a better health system with more capacity – as good and supportable as it is – is not a sufficient leftist answer to the pandemic. In the context of a “flatten the curve” strategy, more capacity in the health system would actually mean more cases and more deaths since they do not threaten the health system’s collapse. An alternative to the “flatten the curve” strategy is to prevent outbreaks at all, a zero-COVID strategy as implemented by New Zealand but also China in the early waves. A few eco-socialists already called for this during the first wave in Germany and Austria. The third kind of strategy is that of uncontrolled infection, called for by many forces on the far right. This led to mass deaths in countries where the far right is in power, such as Brazil. It was however also adopted by non-far-right governments, like Sweden.

In the context of decisions by governments of capitalist states (China included of course), all three strategies are different attempts to find a balance between two interests: On the one hand, making sure that the population does not get sick or die en masse (because that could bring into question the government’s legitimacy, but also because it needs a relatively healthy population as a workforce); on the other hand, making sure that capitalist production and circulation do not get interrupted for too long, since economic growth is the base of the power of every capitalist state. Capitalist states need economic growth to provide their population with jobs and to earn tax money in order to finance whatever the state wants to do. Which strategy a government chooses, and which is the best way to balance those two interests, may change depending on context, and governments are also capable of making decisions that are bad even from their point of view – especially if there are two potentially conflicting interests. A radical left or Marxist point of view, in my opinion, should prioritize the health of workers and marginalized groups, and work towards an end of the capitalist growth imperative that endangers peoples’ health as well as the environment.

But let’s go back to the course of the pandemic in Germany. In autumn and winter, cases were rising again and got a lot higher than in the first wave. However, the federal government as well as the state governments (who made most decisions concerning the pandemic together) hesitated to decide on another lockdown. In November 2020, they introduced a “lockdown-light” which meant restrictions on the number of people that were allowed to meet, bars and restaurants were closed, but other workplaces as well as shops and schools stayed open. Several voices on the left criticized this imbalance between harsh measures for activities in people’s leisure time and few to no restrictions on most workplaces. That changed only slightly, when a harsher lockdown with shop and school closures was introduced in December as cases kept rising. The virus seems to stop spreading when people do things that raise the GDP, was a common joke in those days. Die Linke mainly criticized that the government instead of the parliament held power over most decisions concerning lockdowns, but besides that it again did not promote a distinct position.

It was scientists across Europe who acted more politically than most politically active leftists in this situation by publishing the call “Contain Covid” on 19 December, arguing for a zero-COVID-strategy. Finally, some leftists from Germany but also other countries in Europe spoke out in favour of that strategy and formed the campaign “Zero Covid”. They called for a just shutdown accompanied by a redistribution of wealth, and stressed the importance of also shutting down workplaces and lifting patents on the vaccines that slowly started to be available. However, no bigger organization supported “Zero Covid”, it consisted mainly of individual leftist intellectuals and activists from undogmatic, libertarian communist, eco-socialist and Trotskyist traditions. Many other leftists from different factions ranging from Die Linke to anarchists criticized “Zero Covid” for demanding “authoritarian” state measures. The question of how to implement a “Zero Covid” strategy was also debated within the campaign. The campaign did manage to make their voice heard and was debated in newspapers, despite not being a movement with a presence on the streets. It is hard to say if it achieved anything besides that. At least, there was now a distinct leftist position regarding the pandemic, while previously the discussion was only between the line of the government and calls for loosening restrictions from the right. Maybe “Zero Covid” thus managed to prevent a quicker loosening in spring 2021, but the implementation of a proper Zero Covid strategy never seemed even close to being carried out.

“Free Left”, conservative left

Warmer temperatures as well as vaccinations brought cases down in summer 2021. Vaccination now started to be the main issue concerning the pandemic. Querdenken, which had been full of anti-vaxxers from the beginning, now made this their main concern, while leftists – no matter how their position had otherwise been on measures against the pandemic – mainly called for lifting the patents and making the vaccines accessible globally. However, there were no mass protests for that demand, even though Germany is until today one of the main forces globally to uphold the “necessity” of patents for the COVID vaccines. There were also some vaccine-sceptical voices on the left, the most prominent being the politician Sahra Wagenknecht from Die Linke. Wagenknecht is a picture book example of conservative leftism (she even claims that term for herself) and takes over every reactionary talking point that becomes popular. Some leftists even formed an outright red-brown organization, the “Freie Linke” (“free left”) and participated in Querdenken-protests. They seem to come from different factions of the left, including autonomists and anarchists, but mainly from the conservative leftist crowd of Sahra Wagenknecht-supporters. A critical investigative research by the anarchist podcasters “Übertage” who participated in their meetings revealed a wild melange of Marxist jargon and far-right conspiracy theories in the talking points of “Freie Linke”. It also showed that “Freie Linke” is well connected to the leadership of Querdenken.

After the federal elections in October 2021, a new government was formed consisting of Social Democrats, Greens and the liberal FDP. The latter had been the party most critical of anti-COVID measures (with the exception of the far right AfD who took more extreme talking points and tried to be the parliamentary arm of Querdenken).

During winter 2021/22 with a high number of COVID cases, there were thus only very few restrictions, most of which only concerned unvaccinated people. Fortunately, the vaccines prevented a lot of severe cases and the number of COVID patients in intensive care units was no higher than in the previous winter. Since the collapse of the health system was thus prevented, the strategies of “flatten the curve” and unrestricted contamination are now becoming the same, and the government is tolerating high numbers of infections and most restrictions are lifted. With the exception of some hashtag-campaigns, there is no resistance against this development and critical voices, e.g., from “Zero Covid” seem to be rather insignificant in public discourse. The war in Ukraine is now also overshadowing almost any other issue. Some of the COVID-denialists, including “Freie Linke” are now also shifting to this issue, and adopting reactionary Putin-apologist positions. At the same time, most on the left are struggling to take a clear stance in solidarity with Ukrainian resistance against Russian invasion. One could see a parallel here between the relative insignificance of the left in the face of the pandemic as well as in the face of Russian imperialism – but here is not the place to elaborate on that, and I will focus on the pandemic.

Where was the left response?

So what are the reasons why the left did not manage to take a clear stance for defending the health of workers and marginalized groups against the interests of capital and the capitalist state?

On the one hand, there seems to be a general problem that “we” as leftist groups, organizations or movements are not very good at reacting to new situations, to crises that we may not have foreseen and where we would have to develop a new analysis and act upon it. If the left reacts at all it is often by saying things it has said before and thinks are somehow fitting for the current crisis, e.g., “more money for the healthcare system” when the pandemic hits or “against all wars” when Russia invades Ukraine. And those slogans are often right, but they still fail to really answer the questions that new complex situations pose. It is still an open question to me how we can develop ways to organize, analyse and react in situations that we did not prepare for before. But it is crucial that we pose ourselves this question and look for answers since if we are not able to act in historical turning points, we will not have a meaningful impact on the course of history (in the direction of emancipatory goals) at all.

However, I think there are also some specific issues that one can point out concerning the pandemic. I will first focus on those on the left that opposed or at least did not support a “Zero Covid”-position and tended towards playing down the pandemic, or even went into alliances with the far-right and conspiracy theorists.

One of these problems is that there is a lack of understanding for natural processes like the exponential growth of virus infections, as eco-socialist and “Zero Covid”-initiator Christian Zeller also points out. The virus is not something that we can negotiate with. The range to make compromises between different goals, e.g., of not limiting “personal freedoms” and of containing the virus, is limited by the virus’s feature to grow exponentially once it is allowed to do. Most politics, and here I mean mainstream politics, are concerned about making compromises between different goals. This becomes catastrophic when natural forces are ignored, which is also true for climate change. Concerning climate change, the left is often good at pointing out this problem, but when it came to the pandemic many left positions actually reproduced the same problem. This problem is deepened in some factions of the left by a postmodernist approach of viewing reality as primarily constructed through discourse. The philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who ignores the reality of the virus and sees the crisis as primarily a discourse used to justify biopolitical control, is an example of how postmodernism can go dangerously wrong. While there are some good insights from poststructuralist and postmodernist theories about discourse, the left needs to be able to analyse the materiality of the metabolism between human and nature if it wants to be able to answer to the crises set off by capitalist human-nature relations.

Another problem is the question of how we analyse the state. Anarchism sometimes tends to see the state as an institution that simply oppresses, dominates and controls people out of pure evil. This kind of view lacks a materialist analysis of the role of the state within capitalist society, meaning that the main function is actually to secure good conditions for capital accumulation. While the former view tends to only criticize oppressive things that the state does, e.g., restrictions on how many people are allowed to meet during a pandemic, a materialist analysis can also analyse and criticize the state’s inaction when it comes to protecting people’s health. While both views conclude that the state cannot be used for our ends and that we need to fight for the things we want against the state and finally abolish it, they come to quite different conclusions when looking at how the state deals with the pandemic.

Sometimes connected to this tendency within Anarchism is an individualist understanding of freedom. The state then oppresses my individual freedom to do whatever I want. This notion of freedom is not something specifically anarchist (and social anarchist currents do not share it), but it is indeed the mainstream liberal bourgeois understanding of freedom. The pandemic showed that any emancipatory concept of freedom needs to centre the dependency between us all. If it is “freedom” to go around unmasked and infect everyone with COVID, this cannot be a useful concept for the left. Instead, we should understand freedom as the collective capacity to form our social relations in a way that allows us to care for each other.

Those forces on the left that sympathized or participated in the Querdenken protests shared all of these problems, and in addition also that of a lazy populism that supports every position that is being shouted in the streets, no matter how reactionary it is. Interestingly, this position is itself inconsistent since during the pandemic, the Querdenken position was always a minority, even though a loud one. At most times, the majority either supported the state’s anti-COVID measures or actually thought they were not strong enough.

On the other hand, those on the left that did support a “Zero Covid” position also have to ask ourselves why this did not become a significant force. The fact that a lot of people and organizations on the left did not share this position can only be a partial answer. Another part is that the problem lies in the matter of the pandemic itself: People who are not afraid of getting infected or infecting others have no problem of taking to the streets in masses while the more careful people who tend to support a “Zero Covid” strategy also tend to hesitate more before going to protests. But the insignificance of “Zero Covid” also points to the same problem that causes the relative insignificance of radical leftist positions in general: our groups and organizations are small and barely rooted within the working class. From a materialist analysis of the capitalist state, it is clear that publishing a call alone will never move the state towards shutting down the economy. The only way to introduce a “Zero Covid” strategy in Germany would have been by shutting down the economy ourselves through mass strikes. Most of the intellectuals who signed the call probably knew that. It is still good that they did publish this call, since pointing out alternatives to the status quo even when there are now forces to push through these alternatives has a value in itself and maybe makes it more possible to do things differently in the future.

It is still unclear how the COVID pandemic will develop in the next couple of years and if new variants will make it more dangerous again. But it is clear that in the future, capitalist agriculture as well as climate change will lead to more frequent pandemics. That is why we should try to learn from what happened during the COVID pandemic.

Notes on the international question

by TYLER WEST. From the latest issue of Fightback on internationalism – subscribe today to get your copy. Reworked from a post on the Notes from South of Nowhere blog.

Ukrainian solidarity demonstration in the United Kingdom

Author’s note: This article has bubbled away in the background since the military coup d’état of the 1st February 2021 in Myanmar, I returned to it but still did not see fit to finish it during the Solomon Islands riots of late November 2021, and again during the great unrest which swept Kazakhstan in January 2022. Each time it has slipped back by the wayside as I simply have not been writing for the length of the pandemic. As I have been writing again of late, and with international events in mind, it seems fit to put this piece to paper, which culminated in an initial publication date of the 28th March 2022. As it has been rewritten repeatedly, I’ve done my best to update it to the current situation and make any necessary edits to the central argument. As a result, the argument may come across a little scattered at points, for which I apologise. At any rate…

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given many on the left pause to reconsider their conceptions of imperialism and priorities on the world stage. An earnest reckoning with what has become a rote-learned and stultifying worldview among the left should be welcomed in these circumstances, such that it allows for a reassessment of world conditions and a new framework to be developed. This reckoning is long overdue, being needed since at least the end of the Cold War, and its absence has muddied prior attempts to find footing in assessing New Zealand’s position in other international events, let alone what a coherent response might be.

Over the last decade or three, many events have attracted temporary interest before subsiding into the maelstrom of world affairs, never to be picked up again. In some instances, this is fair enough, an issue is nominally resolved on its own terms and ceases to demand as much attention. One might take the conflict and immediate aftermath of independence for East Timor, to draw a Pacific example. Attention started to drift away after the worst fighting subsided and had largely shifted elsewhere by the time peacekeepers were sailing over the horizon in 2005. In others, events overcame one another, sometimes in the same theatre. Barely had the two operations which comprised the 2006 Israel-Gaza War begun that events tumbled toward the Israel-Lebanon War in that same year. That is unlikely to happen in the case of this new escalation in Ukraine, but it will happen again in the next case without course correction. Without that correction, the chances of grasping a coherent framework sink toward zero.

Inherited ideas

Part of the problem is theoretical, an inherited idea of imperialism from prior eras of imperial excess stretched poorly onto new conditions. To those who cry of Lenin’s theory it should be said that it is time to pick Lenin up and cast his words upon both the extant conditions of the world and the developments since Lenin’s old wounds stole his final years. The ‘unipolar order’, if it ever really existed, has likely been in decay for as long as the neoliberal order has, which is to say since at least the 2008 Great Financial Crisis (in terms of world conflict, some point between the Russo-Georgian War and the rise and annihilation of the ISIS statelet). Some other order has surely been born, even if we are yet to quantify or name it.

Whether our moment resembles the 1970s, the 1930s, the 1900s, or no prior period at all has been hotly debated for years now. It does not need to be relitigated to be able to say that a great break occurred at some point fairly recently and we have not been able to pinpoint it or sufficiently analyse our current era. We have all, from the most ardent Marxist-Leninist to the most unreconstructed neoconservative, been chasing after history as it tears off in all directions around us. The only question is who has recognised this for what it is, and who is still working on a prewritten script while the stage burns around them.

Perhaps another part of the problem, for New Zealand anyway, is an unintentional parochialism. Some on the left find a set core of overseas causes célèbres and don’t really see fit to pay much attention to anything else, creating a kind of internationalist myopia in which a handful of things take up the entire view and complicating factors or outside events fall by the wayside. This is not a call for each and every individual who concerns themselves with such matters to take all the worlds ills upon their mind, but for the movement (or movement in waiting) to which they belong to perform its job as the social brain which acts to alter the path of history. To be capable of meeting each crisis as it arises with cold-eyed rationality and not forget those crises which slip from world headlines and the popular conscience even as they worsen before our eyes. No one person could be asked to do more than they can, but the movement such that it exists can be asked as a generalised whole to grasp the problem.


The problem of numbers

An unquestionable problem is numbers. The extra-parliamentary and especially the nominally socialist left in this country is small, fragmented, geographically scattered, and lacking in resources. This makes any project or campaign a fraught matter if it doesn’t draw initial support from elsewhere or at least a wide swathe of the extra-parliamentary left. With a raft of domestic issues to deal with, something like the ongoing anti-coup insurgency in Myanmar can slip through the attention cracks. It is not to say constant attention is needed from New Zealand, but the general situation should be kept in mind. This is merely one example. There could be many. Let us choose another.

Consider the Solomon Islands, wracked last November by the worst unrest since the civil war. They are not only a much closer neighbour, but New Zealand troops are still deployed there. How many could confidently say they knew the deployment alongside Australian and Fijian forces was provisionally extended in January to at least the end of March this year? At time of writing, it is entirely possible some new factor pushes out that date further (at time of initial publication, new events have occurred bringing the Solomons back into view). It did not require a laser focus on the Solomons to know that, just the curiosity to keep occasional tabs on the situation. The Solomons case is a useful one, as it serves to act as a lesson for those wanting to learn how inter-imperial competition could rip the bandage off open wounds in the social fabric of otherwise uninvolved countries. Not only that, but it provides that lesson in a close Pacific neighbour to New Zealand.

There could be other cases, Kazakhstan seems obvious, but the point is what keeping in touch with these events means for the New Zealand left. Each is a lesson in class power, in imperial dynamics, in economic flow, in any number of things. More importantly, each is real. The socialist left is richer for being able to monitor the world situation effectively. It helps build the possibility of meaningful relationships with workers across national borders and with ethno-cultural minority workers within our own borders. It is one of the things that allows us to be internationalists.


What is to be done?

So, what of it? Why bring it up at all, what is the point? I would like, if I may, to make some suggestions. I do not presume of myself the power to make a declaration of what should be done and presume it will be so. I’ve never been a fan of that kind of sloganeering, or at least its wild overuse. But if I may outline what I’d like to see, at least it is out there, and I can say I have done that much. Before that, some background is necessary. We must survey where we are and where we stand.

As recently as the 1990s the left-media sphere in New Zealand was large enough that it could include a number of publications dedicated to international events either generally or of a specific focus. A prime example being the Free East Timor Coalition, which published Nettalk through the 1990s. Another might be the “Best Irish Paper in the Pacific”, Saoirse, published over the 1980s-’90s, which existed among a once thriving constellation of Irish focused cultural/political organisations and outlets in New Zealand (many involving the recently late Jimmy O’Dea). The long running CORSO publication Overview kept a consistent eye on international events from the late 1970s through early 2000s. Similar groups exist today but few produce physical or digital periodicals for news and debate, and online forums are patchy and stretched across numerous topics. The tiny handful of socialist publications which exist dedicate some paper & ink to international topics, but their best efforts cannot but amount to a fairly small quantity of coverage. Sporadic publication, diverging editorial lines and formats, and the heavy weight of domestic and theoretical affairs make it an unfair ask on their own.

The existing groups which focus on this conflict or that national oppression are largely scattered and co-operate on an ad hoc basis. The Peace Action groups act as a functional node in the synaptic web of organisations. Their activities, in my opinion, should be commended at every turn. Similar could be said of Global Peace and Justice Aotearoa. It is not that they are insufficient (indeed they do more with very little than most could hope to) but that I am referring to a different kind of activity to their largely activist model. What I think is lacking is a national forum to keep the wider movement, such that it exists, abreast of international events. A point of connection which tallies up the sum total of existing international solidarity organisations in New Zealand and, with some degree of formality and structure, brings together the background coverage of their activities with a place to discuss international affairs generally. Something that can act as a locus for ongoing discussion while its contributors are focused on their own activities, sufficiently in-the-loop to keep abreast of internationalist actions in New Zealand but detached enough from the organising that the forum does not slip away, and the purpose lost.

In a way this is just one component of a wider need for a twofold (partial) solution to manifold problems faced by the New Zealand left. The first is the need for a central catalogue of active organisations of and of interest to the extra-parliamentary left in New Zealand, a resource to which the entire extra-parliamentary left can contribute to and benefit from. Such a resource has existed in part before and been attempted at times throughout the years but has never been fully realised on a national scale. It could go a great way to connect at the level of the organisation, consolidate as social movements, help initiate those newly interested in the left, allay intra-left confusion and organising overload, and provide an agreeable project for cooperation. The second is the need for a number of forums and sub-forums among the extra-parliamentary left on a number of topics which could provide similar benefits to those outlined above for an international & conflict forum, while retaining the structure needed to continue functioning through the contention and infighting inherent to political organisation.

Again, the infrastructure for these forums exists in a patchwork across the country – some of these conceptual forums effectively exist already. But the disconnection and lack of way for someone not already truly deeply embedded in the culture of the extra-parliamentary left to get their feet means that functionally it is as far away as existing solely on the drawing board. This country is in a sweet spot where in theory it is small enough for such infrastructure to exist but large enough for the infrastructure to sustain it to exist as well. It is a matter of cooperating across a geographical and socio-cultural divide which has long, perhaps always, hampered efforts at national coordination among the extra-parliamentary and socialist left. Whether it is possible to overcome such divides is not for me to say, but the thought’s worth entertaining, right?